Why affirmative action policies are politically, economically and morally bankrupt

"It is self-destructive for any society to create a situation where a baby who is born into the world today automatically has pre-existing grievances against another baby born at the same time, because of what their ancestors did centuries ago. It is hard enough to solve our own problems, without trying to solve our ancestors' problems," so says Prof Thomas Sowell, US economist, social theorist and author of more than 30 books.

Any country that seeks to achieve peace, social cohesion and economic prosperity for its people should expunge racially or ethnically based affirmative action policies from its statute books. Affirmative action policies are, by definition, discriminatory because they are preferential: they favour an identified group of beneficiaries to the partial or even total exclusion of others.

Studies in many parts of the world have demonstrated that while affirmative action policies have often benefited elite members of the beneficiary group, they have otherwise been dismally counterproductive. Most seriously, they have fanned or compounded social tension between individuals and groups within a nation.

"Racial and ethnic identities prevail and, in some cases, have sharpened ... Tolerance and stability cohabit with distrust and tension. The Malaysian experience underscores the need for an effective, credible and methodical exit plan," wrote Hwok-Aun Lee, a senior lecturer in the department of development studies at the University of Malaya, in an essay titled "Affirmative Action: Many Ups, Many Downs".

In an essay entitled "Malaysia's Dismal Record" Asia Institute director James Chin studied the programme of affirmative action policies enacted in Malaysia in 1970 as part of the country's new economic policy. He found that affirmative action "has led to a deeply fractured nation and perpetual ethnic tensions. It is a cautionary tale of how ethnicity-based affirmative action policies can have unintended consequences."

He explains that "the elite Malays with the strongest political connections were able to secure the bulk of the Malay-only contracts with huge profits". Interestingly, even a cursory study of the SA experience with affirmative action reveals similar results. The same is true of other countries that have implemented this iniquitous policy.

The experience of the US with affirmative action policies displays the same trend. Legislated affirmative action dates back to a founding executive order issued in 1961 by president John F Kennedy. The intellectual foundations of the policy were developed, extended and revamped by president Lyndon B Johnson from 1965 onwards, and the policy began to be implemented under Richard Nixon in the early 1970s. African Americans were identified as the chief beneficiaries of affirmative action.

Yet after 50 years of affirmative action in the US the outcomes are dismal. In an assessment by Gloria G Guzman of the US Census Bureau subtitled "Household Incomes: 2017, American Community Survey Briefs", the following statistics are divulged under "Household Incomes by Selected Characteristics": Asian $81,942; white (not Hispanic) $64,444; Hispanic $47,638; black $39,407. 

It must be acutely embarrassing to African Americans that they occupy the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder relative to other US ethnic groups even after 50 years of affirmative action. The glaring average income disparities between blacks and Asians, never mind the others, must be a source of political and intellectual angst for proponents of the policy.

Something is seriously amiss with affirmative action policies wherever they have been implemented. The basic problem is that they encourage a culture of entitlement within the beneficiary section of the population and they encourage dependence on a paternalistic, nanny state. The usual rationale and justification for the adoption of affirmative action policies has rested on a call for redress of historical injustice, which usually fits in with the agenda of statist politicians. It is therefore not surprising that politicians use the wrongs committed by past regimes as justification for the pursuit of such an iniquitous policy.

Appealing to the sentiments of those afflicted with a victim and entitlement mentality enables policymakers to deflect attention away from the failures of their current policies. They indulge in perpetual scapegoating — blaming, as in the SA context, the historical wrongs of apartheid, colonialism and imperialism. This is utterly nonsensical as many countries have been colonised in the past, including Indonesia, the Philippines, India, Singapore, Latin America, the greater part of the African continent and, of course, many eastern European countries too.

Yet many of these countries achieved economic growth and prosperity because their leaders did not look back, but instead implemented policies that enhanced the spirit of enterprise, expanded and deepened economic freedom and promoted competition. The higher the degree of economic freedom, the higher the trajectory of socioeconomic progress and prosperity. This truism is substantiated by empirical studies such as the Economic Freedom of the World (Fraser Institute), Index of Economic Freedom (Heritage Foundation), and the International Property Rights Index (Property Rights Alliance).

Tragically, a most astounding fact is that policymakers in general and politicians in particular have an uncanny ability to ignore economic realities when they are bent on an agenda of social engineering. All to the detriment of their people and their countries.

To return to the example of affirmative action in the US: when one studies the economic progress of African-Americans before the implementation of affirmative action policies one is amazed to discover that between 1961 and 1971 (before the comprehensive implementation of the newly announced affirmative action policies), black family incomes rose by 55% while those of their white counterparts rose by a mere 31%. Between 1960 and 1972 the number of blacks in professional occupations doubled, while whites in the same categories increased by only a fifth. By all accounts this must be one of the most glorious chapters in the socioeconomic history of African Americans.

In the opinion of Thomas Sowell, "The history of blacks in the US has been virtually stood on its head by those advocating affirmative action. The empirical evidence is clear that most blacks got themselves out of poverty in the decades preceding the civil rights revolution of the 1960s and the beginning of affirmative action in the 1970s. Yet the political misrepresentation of what happened — by leaders and friends of blacks — has been so pervasive that this achievement has been completely submerged in the public consciousness. Instead of gaining the respect that other groups have gained by lifting themselves out of poverty, blacks are widely seen, by friends and critics alike, as owing their advancement to government beneficence."

It is nothing short of a self-inflicted tragedy that black people themselves, in alliance with successive interventionist administrations, are complicit in this morally egregious, economically irrational and demonstrably counterproductive policy. It is time that, in countries where such policies still exist, such as the US, SA, India and Malaysia, the prescribed beneficiaries wean themselves, or are weaned, from the insidiously economically suffocating grip of the nanny state.

In the words of former slave, statesman and writer Frederick Douglass (1818 — 1895): "Everybody has asked the question ... what shall we do with the Negro? I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief. Do nothing with us! ... And if the Negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone."

Douglass must be turning in his grave at the spectre of the prevailing woke-ist anti-culture and affirmative action policies that are still firmly in place in America from more than 50 years ago, despite their abysmal counterproductive socioeconomic consequences.

This article was first published on BusinessDay on 9 May 2021.

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